Asger Jorn


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Danish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, designer, collector, and writer, active in Paris for much of his career. He was born at Vejrum, Jutland, and grew up in Silkeborg. Initially he trained to be a teacher, but in 1936 he went to Paris to study art. He attended Léger's academy for ten months and then worked for Le Corbusier on a mural for the 1937 International Exhibition. Throughout the Second World War he lived in Denmark and during the German occupation (1940–45) he printed a banned periodical entitled Hellhesten. After the war he returned to Paris, where in 1948 he was one of the founders of the Cobra group. The group's central doctrine was freedom of expression, and Jorn's most characteristic works are painted with violent brushwork. In 1951 he became ill with tuberculosis and returned to Silkeborg, where he spent ten months in a sanatorium. After his recovery he travelled widely, but he divided his time mainly between Paris and Albisola Marina in northern Italy. In 1957–61 he participated in the International Situationist movement. The influence of this came out most fully in the paintings he made ‘modifying’ old paintings discovered in junk shops in which demonic creatures stalk placid landscapes. His other works include numerous book illustrations and he also wrote several books himself, beginning with Held og hasard (‘Risk and Chance’) in 1952; this attacked conventional views of beauty and art. The others include Magi og skønne kunster (Magic and the Fine Arts), published in 1971. After 1962 his books were published by his own ‘Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism’. Underlying his writings was an attempt to reconcile his commitment to Communism with his belief in the role of a creative elite. Although he lived mainly elsewhere, he retained a great affection for his homeland. He wrote ‘In the North, we are not only at the cold frontier of civilisation but of existence, truth and life themselves.’ He related the contradictory illogical elements in his art, summed up by the title and mood of one of his most celebrated paintings, The Timid Proud One (1957, Tate), to a Northern inheritance, writing that ‘the essence of art in Scandinavia lies in an interaction of moods from laughter to tears and from tears to lethal rage’. He carried out several major works for sites in Denmark, notably a ceramic wall (installed 1959) and a tapestry (1960) for Århus State High School. In his last years he concentrated on sculpture. He presented many works by himself and by his contemporaries to the Silkeborg Museum, including a vast painting entitled Stalingrad, worked on between 1957 and 1972, inspired by the experiences of a friend who had fought in the decisive battle of the Second World War which gave its name to the painting.

Further Reading

J. Allison and C. Brown, Border Crossings: Fourteen Scandinavian Artists (1992)

Subjects: Art.

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